As long as the two-plus years of the COVID-19 pandemic have been, a history of its impact on the Monadnock Region — or anywhere — would be premature. With the virus mutating and new variants seemingly taking hold each time the spread appears under control, putting COVID-19 in the rearview mirror has been as frustrating as stuffing the last balloon under a table, only to see another pop out.
So The Sentinel’s recent series, Coping with COVID, was not meant as a history of the pandemic, but rather as an exploration of some of the ongoing impacts as the region adapted to life during a serious public health crisis. The multi-part series by a team of staff writers, presented under The Sentinel’s Monadnock Health Reporting Lab initiative and available online at sentinelsource.com/copingwithcovid, took a deeper look at the effects on some area businesses, schools and colleges, the justice system and scholastic sports, and also on some of the families grieving the loss of loved ones to a disease that, according to state data, has claimed the lives of at least 112 Cheshire County residents and nearly 2,500 people statewide.
Given how far-reaching COVID’s impact has been, the series was not intended to be exhaustive. But from it emerges a rush of words that capture the determination of this region in evolving not just to survive the pandemic, but to come out of it stronger. Certainly, “resilience” is one, shown in many ways, not least by small businesses which, facing plummeting sales during the 2020 pandemic shutdown, were “just trying to keep it alive,” as Ted McGreer said of his downtown Keene athletic shoe store, and now are meeting the challenges of supply-chain bottlenecks, rising prices and staffing shortages.
Another is “adaptability,” indispensable as the understanding of the virus and its transmissibility has evolved. This is manifest in the comprehensive preventive protocols developed for the Cheshire County jail which, though it did not dodge COVID cases entirely, has avoided an extensive outbreak. The state court system also adapted by increasing its use of remote technology as well as implementing safety measures, enabling court proceedings to continue. And adapting technology tools has helped local schools and colleges not just improve remote learning to reduce pandemic disruption, but also address learning gaps and assist struggling students going forward.
So, too, “dedication,” shown by, for example, area school coaches who met the challenge of game and even season cancellations that so dispirited their athletes by arranging unofficial competitive schedules to keep them engaged and build team camaraderie. And, N.H. Superior Court Chief Justice Tina Nadeau reported, staff dedication played a key role along with safety protocols for Cheshire County’s courthouse to become one of the state’s first to resume jury trials and avoid any lasting backlog.
A longtime strength of the region, “collaboration,” shone again in so many ways. Looking to improve children’s mental health amidst the pandemic’s stress, Jaffrey Grade School started its Be Active club and strengthened its relationship with Franklin Pierce University students who pitched in to help supervise and monitor the youngsters. Similarly, SAU 29 Assistant Superintendent Brian Campbell credits the pandemic for fostering more collaborative relationships among educators in the district in sharing resources, strategies and moral support.
Tempering those, though, are such words as “sadness” and “loneliness” for too many, while they grieve for loved ones lost to the coronavirus and struggle knowing, in some cases, coronavirus precautions meant they died alone and without the comfort of spouses or other loved ones. The stories of some recounted in the Coping with COVID series show not only the ongoing toll on those continuing on, but also, at a time when infection rates are rising again from the newest omicron strain, the need for continued vigilance. As superintendent Douglas Iosue put it in discussing the county jail’s ongoing pandemic safety planning, “I don’t think any of us can be assured we’ll be done with COVID.”
Still, a reason for “optimism” emerged from the series, optimism that the resilience, adaptability, dedication and collaboration that have served the region so well in coping with COVID for two years bode well for meeting ongoing needs and challenges, and not just those from coronavirus. Keene State College president Melinda Treadwell summed it up in commenting on how more effectively the area’s institutions have pulled together.
“I think one of the most profound, positive things for me is the closeness of relationships between the city, the hospital, the college, K-12 educational system, local not-for-profits, local businesses — how we all came together to support one another and adapt,” she said. “Those relationships are going to carry us forward.”